The Last Week
By the time Boris Johnson made his announcement on the 18th of March, my school had already made the decision to close to the majority of children from the 23rd. Incidentally, my school being two steps ahead of the government is a common theme of the last three months.
For context, I teach in London. Back in mid-March, we weren’t measuring the “R” rate but predictions suggest it was around 3 at that time. The last week was surreal. Our pupil and staff numbers dropped on a daily basis and there was a slightly manic/nervous energy amongst the staff that were in. We kept things going as normal for as long as we possibly could. The lack of staff meant we were particularly busy: teaching extra classes, picking up additional duties as well as setting work for the pupils who were already off. And every night we’d go home and watch the press conference only to learn that yet more staff and pupils would have to be off the next day as they were now classed as vulnerable. I can’t speak for everyone, but the parents in my class were amazing. I felt like I had my own personal team of cheerleaders greeting me at drop off every morning. From testing out remote learning log ins, to providing reassuring arm squeezes, smiles (and even wine) we worked as a team to keep the children happy, safe and learning.
We moved to Guided Home Learning on the 23rd of March. It’s worth mentioning at this point that my school was in the position to send devices home to pupils who needed them so we could start online teaching almost immediately. For most schools, live teaching is not an option but I think what we as profession managed to set up on almost no notice is nothing short of remarkable.
I have always been sceptical about the technology that is plugged to schools. Since qualifying in 2010, I have encountered very little technology that has genuinely improved teaching and learning. Give me 20 minutes, a flip chart and a bullet-tip marker and I can break down the most complex concepts in to child-friendly steps. I believe good teaching requires excellent subject knowledge, patience, clear boundaries and good relationships. Remote Learning has done little to change my mind about this. If anything, it has firmly put to bed the suggestion that teachers are about to be replaced by AI. However, I put my cynicism to one side and threw myself into online learning: a blend of daily live sessions and pre-recorded videos. There were a few challenges but we soon found our rhythm and developed systems for providing input and feedback etc.
There are the obvious obstacles like trying to get a class of 6-year-olds to remain focused during a Google Meet lesson and a variety of guest appearances from pets or younger siblings. Personally I quite enjoyed those moments and they provided some much-needed comic relief.
Teaching online can also make you feel quite vulnerable. In normal times (old normal, not new normal) parents drop off their children at half past eight and collect them at half past three. What happens in the 7 hours in between has always been something of a mystery to parents. “How was school?” they ask eagerly only to get a shrug or, “It was fine!” Online learning hasn’t just given parents a glimpse behind the curtain, it’s torn the curtain down and ripped it to shreds. Once again, my parents have been incredible and their supportive messages kept me going when I was finding things hard but it never stops being strange teaching a class knowing parents are in the background.
What we were able to provide was incredible under the circumstances but it wasn’t the same as being in the classroom and after 3 months, our motivation (and our mood) was beginning to drop. So when my Head Teacher asked how I would feel getting my class back in I almost bit her hand off.
Back to School
Yes there were risks, there always are, but I trusted my school to manage the risks and keep us all safe. It wasn’t easy – it took hours of planning, multiple meetings and the date we had hoped to bring them back was pushed back a number of times as we waited on guidance. from the DfE. But we got there in the end and last week Year 2 came back to school for 5 days.
As well as sorting out bubbles, desks, stationery packs etc, I spent a lot of time planning in opportunities for reflecting on and discussing how we were all feeling. Lock down has been hard on all of us and I didn’t want to bombard my class with maths and English – I wanted to focus on the pastoral side of things. The first day was a half day so a lot of it was spent going through the new rules and expectations. We also had a music lesson and plenty of PSHE – it was a very gentle day and everyone was just happy to be back. But by the end of the day, there were a few (polite) complaints coming from our bubbles:
“Are we going to do some learning tomorrow?”
“We didn’t do any maths or English today.”
And not forgetting:
“Are there going to be proper lessons whilst we’re back?”
I had been so focused on the pastoral, I’d overlooked the one thing they really want: as much normality as possible. They were after the same thing I was after: the reassuring routines of opening exercise books, writing the date, listening to a teacher, asking questions. They were looking to us to provide the comforting structure of a normal school day. The next day when I told them we were doing a mental maths test they CHEERED and then worked in total silence. We planned reports about Elizabeth I in English and investigated how plants change throughout the seasons in science. They worked their socks off and asked to carry on into what was timetabled as Circle Time.
We talk a lot about resilience in education and teaching children to persevere but there is no lesson I could have taught in the classroom that would have built their resilience like the events of the last few months. I’m not suggesting there are no mental health implications after the events of the last few months. Not all children will return to school happy, healthy and ready to learn and for some lockdown will have been hellish. The situation will be different from school to school, classroom to classroom and it is up to us as professionals to do what’s best for our pupils.
I hope that come September we can have all pupils back in classes not bubbles. This isn’t because “I want children’s grandparents to die” (as kindly suggested by an anonymous Twitter account) and it certainly isn’t because I trust Prime Minister Cummings. It’s because I trust my SLT to keep us safe and, more importantly, I have seen how much it means to our pupils to be back in school. How delighted they were to see their friends – even if they could only hug them using sign language. How engaged they were in their lessons even though they were sitting at desks built for pupils four years older than them.
Of course there are very legitimate reasons to feel anxious about returning to school – we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and more people are still dying each day than before we went into lock down. But in this “new normal” I think the best thing we can provide our pupils is the message that plenty of the old normal remains. Life continues, the sun still rises and sets and mental maths is on Thursday.